Community Colleges Raise the Bar

Community Colleges Raise the Bar

The influx of students has spurred a flurry of IT improvements.
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Community college systems are bursting with students. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the total is 10.4 million and climbing, when counting those enrolled for credit and noncredit programs. Growth spurts at specific systems reflect the trend. Enrollment for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System grew from 45,000 to 82,000 during the past six years. The total student count at North Shore Community College (Mass.) grew by 5 percent last year, bringing the total to 12,000. Enrollment is expected to climb again this year. Any number of the other 1,173 U.S. community colleges have similar stories.

Community colleges' student pools are probably the most diverse group in higher education: recent high school graduates--many of whom are low-income students who need the affordable tuition; other young students who have been squeezed out of the four-year state systems; professionals brushing up on their skills; and the unemployed casualties of the recent recession.

Of course, with all of these new students comes much more data. The problem is that many of the beleaguered community college enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are due for upgrades. They are straining to push through their pipelines many more admissions applications, financial aid records, student retention records, academic data, payroll, and HR information.

And just as the down economy has motivated more students to seek out the community college systems, states, counties, and the federal government have less money to allocate to these systems. Last year, Virginia's community colleges lost 8 percent of their state operating funds, according to AACC. California's state budget cut community college funding by almost 2 percent. Granted, some systems have raised tuition to make up for the difference, but those increases have, at best, helped these systems maintain the resources they have.

At a time when they can least afford it, community colleges are being forced to abandon legacy systems, or upgrade older commercial ERP systems, to keep their operations running. "These are on the order of millions of dollars per system. It wouldn't be uncommon to spend $2 million to $3 million to move from a legacy system to a commercial ERP system," says George Boggs, president of AACC.

Some of the community college systems lucky enough to get ahead of the curve are glad they addressed growth earlier in the cycle.

That's the case at Monroe Community College (N.Y.), which has experienced a 2 to 6 percent annual enrollment growth during the past five years. "It is a great challenge to have," says Jeff Bartkovich, VP of Education Technology Services, of the increased enrollment. "Our [technology] budget has not increased proportionally. We've had to manage our resources more wisely," he adds.

At about the time enrollment started to grow, administrators at Monroe accepted the fact that the school would need a new ERP system to keep up with new demands.

"We began to see the future, to see how the information serves us," says Bartkovich. A faster and more comprehensive system could better track students and their status from admission to graduation.

Bartkovich is specifically talking about a relational database, which will automatically upgrade a piece of information in all records, eliminating the need to make a name change, or add financial information, on a file-by-file basis. Monroe eventually chose the SunGard SCT Banner product, investing $3.5 million during the past four years. An implementation of the admissions system module last summer was followed by the finance system in the fall. A human resources software module will be in place by early 2005.

At a time when they can least afford it, community colleges are being forced to upgrade older ERP systems.

Bartkovich acknowledges that investment wasn't exactly an easy sell to the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which did provide some money for the project. In the end, Monroe convinced state and local administrators on the long-term gain, with the expectation that the system will be in place for at least 15 years. Other funding came from Monroe College and the Monroe College Foundation.

The Los Angeles Community College District, which claims to be the nation's largest system with nine colleges and 130,000 students, acquired SAP's ERP system in 2000 and went live with the financial suite of services in 2002. The human resources applications will go live next year.

Until it installed the SAP system, LACCD used a homegrown IT system that it bought from the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1968. CIO Tony Tortorice describes the legacy system as "sclerotic" and "brittle."

"If something was broken in one place it was hard to fix it in another," he laments.

Further complicating matters was the reliance on a small group of in-the-know employees who had years of experience coding and working around the system's quirks. Administrators started to worry about the repercussions of retirement.

The de facto billing cycle was 180 days because that was as fast as invoice information could move through the system. At one point, 30 percent of the Los Angeles Community College District's 14,000 full-time and part-time employees were not being paid on time. Today that percentage is down to 5 percent, even though the HR suite has yet to be fully implemented. Other installed applications have helped tighten up the system to keep better tabs on the hiring approval process and the personnel roster.

That's not to say that everything went smoothly, adds Tortorice. Bringing in a new ERP system, in essence, ushered in a culture change for the L.A. district. A larger group of people would be using the system, which meant that the group of users would have varying skill levels. "The warning sign was when we found we had to have a 'how to use a mouse' training," he reports. Further, there was resistance to using new technology and viewing data on new screens. The IT department addressed concerns by introducing the changes slowly and by minimizing the visible changes to the users. Hopefully all will be ready when the HR module goes live in January.

The acronym CRM commonly stands for "customer relationship management," but the phrase has been slightly altered to "constituent relationship management" to encompass the missions of educational institutions and other nonprofits, explains Eric Bassett, director of research practice for Eduventures, a research and consulting firm. The altered phrase better fits institutions that are offering portals and other IT applications to improve the student and employee interactions.

For example, if a student is to go online and register for a class, pay for it, download the syllabus, and then order the required textbooks, the ERP infrastructure must be seamless and reliable.

" We had registration lines the length of a football field.... Today, 85 percent of the credit students register online." -Gary Ham, CIO, North Shore Community College

Community colleges, though, are still coping with this business shift.

It would not have been uncommon 20 years ago for the different departments at a community college to have entirely separate IT systems. "When a student changed an address, administrators had to input the change five different systems," says Boggs.

Dan Bloomer, vice president of Finance and Administration for Orange County Community College (N.Y.), admits to having "islands" of information across campus. And while the college does use an ERP system--one installed 13 years ago--its various departments were allowed to customize the applications to suit their needs. For example, preview screens were modified so employees could read all information in one view. Although that can seem convenient, the changes have yielded a system that can't easily share information from one department to another. "It was a good idea gone bad," he says. "We modified the system to such a degree that any system upgrade was a difficult ordeal." It took the college one year to get everything right during a recent upgrade. Now the college is bidding for a new ERP system. The hope is that the larger SUNY system's relationships with commercial vendors will allow Orange to buy a system at a reduced licensing rate.

North Shore Community College (Mass.) faced a new ERP challenge in 2000 when it included the development of a campus portal in its strategic plan. The idea of giving students an online gateway to information fit into its goal of providing workable self-service for students. As a result, the burden on staff and students has lightened.

"We had registration lines the length of a football field," says CIO Gary Ham. There were times that the police had to be on duty to monitor the crowd and keep student frustration levels in check. Registering for a class could take three-plus hours. Today, 85 percent of the credit students register online.

North Shore's portal allows users to touch eight different campus systems, including the course management system, e-mail, registration, financial services, and an FTP website service. The total "user base" is 8,000 and there are 2,000 unique users daily. The portal system, which required a $600,000 investment, has helped the system save money in staff time, says Janice Forsstrom, vice president for Administration and Finance. She estimates the college has realized $750,000 ROI as a result of cost savings and student self-service.

The system's implementation also encouraged staff to look at how they were doing their jobs, she adds. The emphasis is on being customer/constituent oriented. The enrollment and registrar offices have come together to cross-train on the SunGard SCT Banner ERP and portal system, and to improve information sharing between the departments.

Anne Arundel Community College (Md.) began its research on ERP and IT upgrades in the mid-1990s. Until that point, campus operations were run by a homegrown system. Representatives of a steering committee were picked to represent the college as a whole, explains Dave Becker, chief technology officer. Each representative was given a vote for deciding on a system and its applications, but the votes cast by the Credit Instruction department and Continuing Education were weighted heavier. The academic voice was basically given more importance.

"We did that because we are in business to serve the student, not to produce the prettiest paycheck on the face of the earth," says Becker. Eventually the committee selected a Datatel system, which was installed in 1999. The financial suite was the first to be operational. An HR system was up and running in 2001. After this, administrators installed a portal so students could register online, check schedules, and fulfill other operations.

The portal even allows students to order their textbooks online via a partnership with the Nebraska Book Company.

To date, Anne Arundel has spent $2 million on its ERP and portal systems. The cost doesn't include staff time, which will be calculated into an ROI report that comes out at the end of this fiscal year.

Colleges such as North Shore and Anne Arundel are in step with the overall IT trends, adds Bassett of Eduventures. In his company's 2004 study of community colleges and their objections, respondents' information revealed two main themes: the need to integrate systems with enterprise portals and other applications; and the push for more digital content in the classroom. In fact, community college leaders report that their No. 1 objective is to improve student learning outcomes. And they also report that new technology will be the most relevant way to make that happen.

If the study reveals one thing, it's this: There definitely is a will to change the IT landscape at the community college. Now the challenge is finding the way to pay for it and motivate and train staff.


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